Polish aviators fatally crash in Těrlicko

Aviators Franciszek Żwirko and Stanisław Wigura fatally crash in 1932 in Těrlicko, then part of Czechoslovakia.

On 11 September 1932, Polish aviators Żwirko and Wigura were killed flying to Prague when the wing of their RWD-6 sport plane snapped during a heavy storm. Only two weeks earlier, on August 28, the pair had won the prestigious FAI International Tourist Plane Competition in Berlin, Germany, with Żwirko piloting and Wigura as mechanic and second pilot.

Born in Warsaw in 1901, Wigura studied at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology, starting in 1922. There he met Stanisław Rogalski and Jerzy Drzewiecki and formed the RWD air-craft manufacturing team with Rogalski and Drzewiecki in 1927. By 1928 the team had completed their first aircraft, the RWD-1, then focusing their work on aircraft for sports aviation, including the 1929 RWD-2 and the larger RWD-4 in 1930. In 1929, Wigura graduated as an engineer and also completed a piloting course from the University Aeroclub in Warsaw, allowing him to become active in sports aviation. It was at the Aeroclub that Wigura met Franciszek Żwirko, a friendship which would cement the careers of both men.

Five years Wigura’s senior, Żwirko was born in Święciany (in preset -day Lithuania), at the time part of the Russian Empire. During World War One, he volunteered for the Russian Army, joining General Józef Dowbor-Muśnicki’s Polish corps in 1917. He then fought the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Having battled his way to Poland following the Bolshevik victory, Żwirko completed his pilot training in Bydgoszcz and Grudziądz before becoming a fighter pilot in the Polish 1st Air Regiment. In 1929, he was appointed as a liaison officer to Warsaw’s University Aeroclub, which allowed him to increase his activity in sports aviation and meet young piloting enthusiasts, including Stanisław Wigura, then a young engineer.

Proud pilots. Franciszek Żwirko(R) and Stanisław Wigura (L) stand next
the Polish RWD-6
aircraft, which won
the Challenge 1932
competition in Berlin.

From their fateful meeting, Żwirko and Wigura often flew together, with Żwirko acting as the lead pilot and Wigura often taking the role of mechanic and second pilot. In their first flight as a team, the pair flew a 5,000 km round trip itinerary which covered Warsaw, Paris and Barcelona, ending again in Warsaw in 1929, aboard a flimsy, Polish-built RWD-2 prototype.

Following the success of this trip, the pair began to compete internationally: in July 1930, they took part in the 2nd International Tourist Plane Competition, flying a newer iteration of their design, but were forced to withdraw due to engine failure. This did not dampen their success, however, with the duo winning the 2nd Flight of South-West Poland and the 3rd Light Aircraft Contest later that year.

Wigura’s success in aviation did not prevent him from helping design further aircraft for RWD. Built in 1931, the RWD-7 sports plane became a record-breaking aircraft: flown by Drzewiecki, it set a speed record for the light touring class in 1931, travelling at 111 mph, and an altitude record of 19,755 ft the following year. Wigura also helped design the RWD-5 which, in 1933, became the smallest plane ever to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean, flying 2,226 miles from Warsaw to Rio de Janeiro.

International Champions

In 1932, the RWD-6 aircraft was built, designed specifically to compete in the 1932 Challenge (the 3rd International Tourist Plane Competition) which was held in Berlin. The competition consisted of three sections. First, technical trials, which awarded points based on the quality and ability of the aircraft as well as for features such as comfort and visibility in the cockpit. The second stage of the Challenge was a 4,575 mile rally across Europe, starting and ending in Berlin via several countries, including Poland, Italy and France. The final test in the Challenge was a maximum speed test over a 300 km course.

The victor was decided by the maximum speed test on 28 August with the competition being very fierce. Żwirko and Wigura won by three points, leaving German Fritz Morzik in second place. While their success was certainly a result of their aviation skills, the technical features of their RWD-6 also played a key role in their victory. Both Żwirko and Wigura were awarded Golden Crosses of Merit. Also, Warsaw was made host of the 1934 (and final) International Tourist Plane Competition in honour of the pilots.

All of Poland celebrated. Poems were sent to newspapers in honour of the pilots’ achievements. But, the celebrations were short-lived: As a result of their win, the pair were invited to numerous air meetings and were due to attend one such event in Prague on 11 September. However, a heavy storm broke the wing of their RWD-6, leading to a fatal crash in the forest of Těrlicko.

The news of their untimely death shocked Poland: Żwirko was only a few days short of his 37th birthday, Wigura was only 31. The country mourned and the pair were buried in a joint plot at the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw, in the Avenue of the Notables. At their funeral, the airmen’s coffins were mounted on top of the wreckage of their plane and transported through the city. Both were posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. In 1993, 28 August was made Polish Aviation Day (celebrated to this day) in commemoration of their success.

Road of heroes. The road leading to the Chopin airport in Warsaw is named after these two intrepid pilots. Ulica Żwirki i Wigury is 5.5 km long and was officially opened in 1934.

The art of flight

The International Tourist Plane Competitions, known as “Challenges”, were major aviation events held in interwar Europe. Conceived by the Aero-Club de France, the first Challenge was held in Paris in 1929. German pilot Fritz Morzik won, and as a result the second Challenge was held in Berlin in 1930 which Morzik also won. The third Challenge in 1932, also in Berlin, was famously won by Polish pilots Żwirko and Wigura.

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